If the Southern melting pot has a sound — and you better believe it does — you can hear it at the Center for Southern Folklore's Memphis Music & Heritage Festival. That's where, every year since 1988 (and don't forget the first one, back in 1982), musicians, artists, dancers, cooks, craftspeople, and, of course, citizens gather to celebrate and express their shared culture. This year's festival, held Saturday and Sunday, August 30th and 31st, is more diverse than ever, representing what's going on today, looking to the future, and never losing sight of the past.
"Each year, we give people the chance to sample the richness of Memphis' musical culture," says Judy Peiser, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Southern Folklore. "We go to the people like Billy Lee Riley, Eddie Bond, and Sonny Burgess, who have been performing rockabilly since they first recorded at Sun Studio. But then we go to young neo-soul performers like Tonya Dyson, Tim Terry, and Hope Clayburn, who are looking at the music heritage of this area and putting their own spin on it.
"It's not something like [renowned mule trader and auctioneer] Ray Lum used to call 'p.m. whiskey' — it's not past memories. It's a chance for you to know the musical history of the area but also to know what's happening today."
Spread over five stages at the intersection of Main Street and Peabody Place, the festival will be a one-stop spree for all the senses. You can eat Ella Kizzie's best-of-all-time peach cobbler while watching the folks moving to the sounds of Bobby Rush or Al Kapone, or you can smell Neely's barbecue while getting your hands on a knockout painting. Multiply that by north of 100 performers, artists, and food vendors, and your options are almost limitless.
One unique feature of the festival is the Talkers Corner. There you can sit and listen to quilters, musicians, songwriters, radio DJs, beer-brewers, baseball players, and others tell about their lives.
Another calling card is the festival's family-friendly nature, with puppet shows, music and craft workshops, children's storytelling, and general PG rating. (This year also features kid-friendly music from Joe Murphy and the Flying Monkey Man Band.)
Yet another calling card is the festival's emphasis on dance — or, more precisely, spirit. "The dance is amazing," Peiser says, "because whether it's square dancing, Chinese, Latin, or drum lines, people show out."
One new feature this year is FestPass. The festival, as usual, is free. But for a $20 contribution to the Center for Southern Folklore, you get a dollar off all beverages, a 2008 festival poster for half-price, and priority seating, when possible, at the stages.
This year's festival showcases two notables from recent International Blues Challenges. One is Eden Brent, a blues chanteuse/boogie-piano performer who won the competition in 2006. The other is the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, a set of siblings from Tupelo who were runners-up in 2007. What makes Homemade Jamz special isn't just their sound but their sound in light of their ages: Ryan Perry (guitar/vocals) is 16; Kyle (bass) is 14; Taya (drums) is 10.
Their father, Renaud, wrote all the songs, save one, on their excellent debut album, Pay Me No Mind, and he handmade Ryan's guitar from a carburetor.
Can you have the blues if you ain't even old enough to shave? From the sound of Homemade Jamz, that'd be yes. (Hey, if an Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast can be only 14, why not a blues bassist?) You can and should check my math when the band plays Sunday evening.
The 2008 festival is dedicated to "Little" Laura Dukes, the diminutive dancer, singer, and ukulele and guitar player who toured with Robert Nighthawk and many Dixieland bands and performed in the Memphis Jug Band with Will Shade and Will Batts. In her honor, two jug bands will be on the bill: the Last Chance Jug Band and Steve Gardner and the Jake Leg Stompers.
"We're presenting live music for people to enjoy, smile at, reminisce with, and dance to," Peiser says.
To get you in the mood for this year's festival, go to the center's website at southernfolklore.com. There you can watch and listen to clips of performances from festivals past, such as Rufus Thomas tap dancing or Mose Vinson playing "Tell It Like It Is, My Girlfriend Won't Be Still."
"It's great to have an archive," Peiser says, "but if it's not accessible and not used, what good is it?"
Of course, like past festivals, this year's will be documented for future generations. Still, you're going to want to be there in person. It's the best vantage point from which to see the horizon of Southern culture, spread out before you, the past blending into the future.